Zimbabwe’s major hospitals have been forced to significantly scale down operations after doctors went on strike demanding to be paid in foreign currency.
The crisis-hit hospitals were releasing patients they considered stable and closing down outpatients departments as the strike spread countrywide on Tuesday.
At the Harare Central Hospital, the country’s third largest, only 10 doctors out of 100 reported for duty, authorities said.
The doctors said their salaries, which were pegged on local currency, have depreciated significantly.
They also want to be paid $10 on call allowances and a review of their work conditions.
However, the government declared that the strike was illegal and urged the doctors to return to work.
Health and Child Care minister Obadiah Moyo said the government had no capacity to pay the doctors in foreign currency.
“There is no foreign currency in the country to buy medicines for use in hospitals, and that particular aspect of paying individuals in US dollars is not possible,” Mr Moyo told state media.
“The president has been encouraging the pharmacists to sell drugs in local currency because there is no foreign currency, people cannot get foreign currency.
“If we were to try and say we are going to be paying people in foreign currency, it would eat into the allocations for medicines, fuel and other things.”
The bond notes
Zimbabwe has been facing severe shortages of medicines and fuel since the end of September after the central bank ordered banks to separate foreign currency dominated accounts from those in local currency, known as bond notes.
That saw exchange rates between the bond notes, which the government insists were at par with the US dollar, tumbling on the parallel market.
The depreciation of the surrogate currency has seen prices skyrocketing, resulting in shortages of basic commodities and medicines.
In March, doctors went on strike for close to a month demanding car loans.
The doctors also wanted the government to pay them outstanding allowances and an improvement in their work conditions.
Zimbabwe’s once vibrant health sector has suffered from a severe brain drain and perennial shortages of medicines due to years of underfunding.